Posts filed under ‘Wittgenstein’

Our Bodily Bias

How much does a mind’s embodiment have to do with its recognition of other minds? The question might seem to come out of science fiction, as science fiction is full of examples of intelligence that has a different physical incarnation from our own. Most of the time, the denizens of science fiction universes seem to have little trouble in recognizing other intelligent entities as intelligent, regardless of their appearance. The bodies range from the nearly identical, in the case of humanoid replicants in Blade Runner to the gargantuan and fantastic, as is the case of the vessel that houses HAL in 2001. In most cases, the illusion is believable. Give an object a voice, preferably one that seems to correlate with some movement, and the audience is easily taken to think some mental process is behind it.
Not so when the audience leaves the theater and with it, their suspension of disbelief. We deal with robots all the time. I’m interacting with one while I type this, use an ATM, or call the automated voice that tells me what numbers to press when I want to pay my phone bill. At no point in my regular interaction with these devices am I convinced that what I’m dealing with has intelligence. There is no knockdown artificial entity that can convince us, today in the world, that there is consciousness behind the voice and movement.

I’ve written about this before—it was the topic that introduced my philosophy of mind class a year and a half ago. My interest in embodied cognition came about because I wanted to investigate the question. Then, as now, I predict that our recognition of any differently embodied (artificial or otherwise) would be clouded by bias. We want to look into eyes like our own and perceive, somehow, a spark that appeals to our intuition.

The paper I wrote focused on what an approach enlightened by theories of embodied cognition might do to help us understand how our bodily bias might affect our recognition of minds with embodiment different from our own. It made heavy use of Nagel’s famous “What is it Like to Be A Bat?” and Andy Clark’s work, as well as some sources from professors at UCSD’s embodied cognition lab. It was a solid final paper for my first philosophy of mind class.

This semester, I’ve been auditing a graduate class on embodied cognition at the University of Edinburgh. Today was the second to last seminar of the semester, and I couldn’t stop wondering about my original question afterwards. Near the end of this term, how much closer am I to answering that question?

I think that I now have a better understanding of the question, itself. The problem of other minds has many facets, but my question is most concerned with a particular facet of the problem. We intuitively recognize cognition, to different degrees, in many places external to ourselves. Sometimes, this intuition is overanalyzed. This is the problem Wittgenstein considers wayward philosophy makes when it declares that animals do not talk because they do not think, instead of considering that “they simply do not talk” (Philosophical Investigations §25). It is easy to ascribe a measure of cognition to a dog, and the reality of other minds is presupposed by many of our interactions. At least in the case of those interactions with that which has, in an intuitively obvious fashion, cognition.

That, of course, is the rub. Some dogs have big, watery eyes. They make sounds and assume postures similar to our own when we feel a certain way. It is fairly easy to simulate, in one’s own mind, what the dog might be feeling. What goes into this simulation in our minds? We can’t have the same phenomenal experience of a dog, after all. How much is our biology directly responsible for that instant, non-theory laden simulation (if that is indeed what happens) of what it is like to be a dog? To what degree does our environment contribute? These sorts of questions are central to embodied cognition theorists, many of which have their sights set on the higher question of what, exactly, constitutes cognition.

The course has thoroughly covered Jesse Prinz’ theory of emotions, body image, body schema, and lately the phenomenology of agency. These are all topics that can be informed by embodied cognition theory. The problem of other minds has appeared periodically in all of my classes this semester, and I get the feeling that philosophers are getting past the apparent truth of “they simply do not talk” to what happens when we attribute agency, or consciousness, to ourselves and others. Hopefully, when we understand how we recognize consciousness in those beings that have embodiment similar to our own we will also be on the way to an understanding of consciousness that allows us to see through our bodily bias.

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March 11, 2008 at 8:19 pm 2 comments

Letter to Wittgenstein

Dear Ludwig Wittgenstein,

It’s better that much of your philosophy (or maybe all of your philosophy) was released before you were ready—better that some of it was taken from your grasp before you died. It helps me, as a student, to see the struggle of philosophy more clearly. Too much philosophy today is sterilized, swept clean of its author. The only mark of personality is on the occasional joke, turn of phrase, or idiosyncratic thought experiment.

It’s strange. I meet philosophers in person all the time. They are not like the people they seem in their publications or their lectures. I think it might be the subject. Or the culture of self-consciousness that comes with discussing what seems absurd to the majority of the populace. Or, it might be like you diagnosed: that “pretensions are a mortgage which burdens a philosopher’s capacity to think.”

I hate that I do it. Evidence of this can be seen all over this place where I publish. Evidence of my frustration is here, too. Every philosopher is frustrated. It’s too bad the struggle doesn’t come to light more often, as it does in your writings.

Cheers,
Don

P.S. Yes, I wrote a letter to a dead, crazy, Austrian. It makes more sense as a game.

February 25, 2008 at 9:04 am Leave a comment

Pascal, Transcendentalist? Revisited

I was reading Wittgenstein’s On Certainty to wind down after working on my biology presentation, and hit proposition 100: “The truths which Moore says he knows, are such as, roughly speaking, all of us know, if he knows them.” It struck me that this was a good definition of transcendental truths (on which, up to this point in OC, Wittgenstein has been critical). It then struck me that my previous posts on Pascal and Thoreau were even more confused than I had previously thought.

Some of my background in understanding transcendentalism comes from reading Thoreau. This reading has been done outside of an academic setting and unfortunately largely in a vacuum. Some of my background in understanding transcendentalism comes from reading Kant. Most of that consisted in reading his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in my Ethics class last year. It was the Kantian component (both in my background, and in terms of completeness of idea) that was missing from my thinking on Pascal.

Of course Pascal was a transcendentalist. He was a christian apologist! He believed in a transcendent higher power, with truths that, roughly speaking, all of us (could) know. In a very Kantian sense, Pascal was a transcendentalist. At least part of my confusion came about because of a definitional issue.
At least my view was confused in an interesting way. I think the root of of my difficulty was in trying to link Pascal’s (and Kant’s) transcendentalism to Thoreau’s. Thoreau’s transcendentalism carries with it a lot of cultural baggage, to which I may be particularly susceptible. I haven’t had the opportunity to have this baggage exposed to me in a conversational setting, and it now seems to have lurked in the background, obfuscatory. If I ever get back to linking Pascal to Thoreau, I’ll need to more closely examine what differences there may be between his transcendentalism and Kant’s as well as why I think those differences exist.

December 4, 2007 at 4:25 am Leave a comment

Averroes and the Limit of Thought

In criticizing Al-Ghazali, Averroes “insisted that the reality of causal operations could be inferred from sensory experience and argued that knowledge itself depended upon causality, since the distinction between what is knowable and what is not depends upon whether or not causes can be assigned to the thing in question” (John Henry, “Causation.” Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction.” 2002.)

This seems to blend epistemology and metaphysics together. It is critical in the sense that it draws a limit; in this way, it foreshadows both Kant and the Tractarian Wittgenstein. Averroes apparently draws the limit to what is knowable from a metaphysical principle—knowledge is based on the ability to assign a cause. I wonder if it might be better put that knowledge must be based on a justification. Averroes could have meant that when challenged on how it is we know a fact, we relate something that seems like its cause. I’m not sure that cause was the root of justification in Averroes’ philosophy. It isn’t Henry’s goal to be more specific on this point, but it seems like it could be a major failing in Averroes’ epistemology.

A theological approach to this might be what I’m finding so perplexing. For the early Wittgenstein, for example, no limit to thought can be drawn for to draw a limit is to know what is on the other side of it. To draw a limit to thought is to think, as he puts it, what cannot be thought (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Introduction). If, however, one accepts a certain amount of inscrutability in the nature of God then one can declare that much of God exists outside of human thought. We can contemplate God as Aristotle contemplated the Prime Mover, incapable of knowing its totality because of the limits of matter. As Aristotle had a tremendous influence on Averroes, this might be more fitting.

December 2, 2007 at 3:40 pm 1 comment

Final Papers Might Equal More Posts

I’m in the midst of final papers. This should mean that my blog continues in its update dry spell. Instead, it probably signifies a increased volume of posts. I started this blog while writing my final papers at the end of spring semester, after all. Both developing thoughts and overflow might end up as new posts.

There are three topics on which I’m writing final papers, so the odds of posts materializing for any of them are good. For my Wittgenstein class, I’m writing a paper on Wittgenstinean Causation, with a focus on Wittgenstein’s influence on G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Causality and Determination”. For my class on Science and Religion, I’m writing a paper on Medieval Muslim views on causation. The primary figures of this comparative paper are Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Al-Ghazali, and Averroes (Ibn Rushd). For my Seminar in Ecology I might have some posts which lean closer to science than philosophy. I’m giving a presentation and writing an accompanying paper on Agave pollination syndromes with a focus on the coevolutionary aspects of this particular syndrome.

December 2, 2007 at 3:22 pm Leave a comment

A History of Causation in a Flowchart (for Philosophy)

… at least to the level of description I want for my Science and Religion Midterm. This tracks philosophical attitudes towards causation only; it does not track the understanding of causation in theology or science (physics, ecology, etc.). This flowchart does not nearly present a complete history, but it does trace the concept fairly well for philosophy conducted in the last century and its early modern influence.

History of Causation Flowchart

Edit: I see that the image is being cut off at the side. To see the whole thing, right click and select “view image”. Click the magnifying glass to enlarge, and get the note about logical positivism.

October 15, 2007 at 5:01 pm Leave a comment


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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